Today I’m extremely pleased to bring you a chick lit short story written by none other than my good friend Kat Ellis. Kat was displeased to say the least about her assigned genre – she usually writes YA sci-fi/fantasy and thriller – but she put on her big girl knickers, channelled her inner Bridget Jones and threw down some damn good words. Personally, I think she’s missed her calling. Anyone else think Kat should be a chick lit writer? Say I!
A Very Minty Christmas
by Kat Ellis
My horsebox sounded more like an actual horse than a twenty-first century feat of engineering. It whickered at me all the way down the unnecessarily twisty driveway, sputtering the last hundred yards to Minty’s house just to make sure she would hear me coming.
My mother, one Minty Gershwin-Fox of the Sussex Gershwin-Foxes, appeared at the front door like a shimmering beacon of pearls and green chiffon as I hopped down from the cab.
“Mummy!” I threw my arms wide, sniggering as she checked behind her to see whether Clint had overheard me through the open front door. For some reason she insisted on maintaining the charade that she and I were sisters in front of her toyboy husband, Clint, even though they’d been married almost ten years. And though I lacked the carefully cultivated glamour of the rest of the Gershwin-Fox set, there was no way we looked near enough in age to fool anyone into believing we were sisters. I was a girlish oversight, so Minty said, that had caught her out at the ripe old age of forty-seven.
Now in her seventy-ninth year—keep your voice down, Felicity!—she trotted like a bloody springbok down the front steps onto the gravel driveway, strutting her Manolos over to me without even an ankle wobble. If I’d tried that, I’d have been begging Uncle Percy for some of his horse pills by now. (By horse pills I mean the painkillers he kept at his veterinary surgery, though the idea of the cravat-wearing old crust getting into a little smack-dabblery in his silver years wasn’t without a certain charm.)
I was embraced. A brief pressure of arms, two air kisses, and then she let it be known she had spotted the horsebox that was now merrily leaking oil onto her pristine driveway.
“Did you bring a horse with you?”
I smiled, because there was really only one way to deal with Minty. “It’s not that kind of horsebox. I use it to transport all my stock.”
Stock, in this case, was my range of handcrafted shabby-chic furniture, which I lugged around with me to the various fetes and craft fairs where I earned my living. A living I had to supplement with online sales, of course, but I liked the on-the-road lifestyle enough that Minty had taken to calling me the bohemian to her friends whenever she thought I wasn’t listening.
“How lovely! But do let’s go inside, this cold is biting.” Minty matched my smile and then doubled it. She was a fucking pro at this game.
I grabbed my backpack out of the cab of the horsebox and followed her up the steps. I paused at the threshold, savouring my last breath as a free woman until the New Year.
Then I entered the Gershwin-Foxhole.
Christmas Eve morning
Minty had the preparations well underway. Strangers filtered in and out of the house like tray-carrying shoals of fish, loading up the tables which had been dropped off earlier in the parlour. I’d made myself scarce for three very good reasons.
One: Minty’s pre-Christmas party regime was not to be interfered with unless the interferer had a death wish, and my offering to help, or even being in the vicinity while the preparations were underway, would be deemed interference.
Two: The smells emanating from the off-limits platters were driving me quite literally insane with hunger; insane enough that I was considering taking my chances against the wrath of Minty.
Three: Clint had suggested we nip out for a crafty fag, and all things considered (including my nicotine-withdrawal twitchiness), I thought it was a bloody good idea.
“Spark one up for me won’t you, Fliss? There’s a good girl.”
Clint had the most ridiculous moustache I’d ever seen on a real person, and one previous mishap with a lighter had given him a healthy dislike of sparking his own cigarettes. I lit us a couple of Bensons and handed one over to him.
We smoked in cheerful silence. Clint was a man of few words, and it was one of the things I liked most about him. Not because I didn’t enjoy conversations with him, but because it was such a bloody relief after having to keep up with the whirlwind that was my mother for—I side-eyed the old clock above the door of the stable—seventeen whole hours.
I took a conciliatory drag, noticing through the blue wisps polluting the air around me that my horsebox had somehow found a new home inside the stable. Quite how Minty had managed it I hadn’t a clue, seeing as I still had the keys in the pocket of my fleece bodywarmer, but I could just picture her repurposing some of her tray-carrying minions for the task of dragging it out of sight of her party guests.
A loud metallic clang rang out from the stable, and Clint and I shared a worried glance. When we reached the stable door I was half expecting to find the engine had fallen out of the damn thing, leaving it like some sad eviscerated husk, but instead of mechanical gizzards I found a pair of red legs sticking out from the under it. As I examined them more closely, I realised those legs were clad in a seriously festive pair of Santa pants.
“Shitting bollocksing twat!” This and another loud clang emanated from the underside of the horsebox.
Clint looked at me, one magnificent eyebrow raised. “I fear Minty’s gone and run over Father Christmas, old thing.”
I grinned. “Either that, or she’s Wicked Witch of the Easted him.”
The legs emerged, followed by a rather nicely sculpted torso wrapped in a criminally well-fitted black t-shirt. Finally an oil-covered face poked out to stare up at us.
“Oh, I’m sorry about the swearing, I didn’t know anyone was nearby…”
His voice trailed off as we both continued staring at him. Now that I’d gotten over the Santa pants and the oil-smeared visage, I realised the nicely sculpted torso belonged to a man with a rather beautifully sculpted face. The bastard.
“Did you lose something underneath my horsebox?” I smiled Mintily at him.
He grinned, the contrast of white teeth quite startling. “Oh, this is yours, is it? That must make you Minty’s” – cough – “sister.”
I nodded. “That’s right. I’ll assume that means my” – cough – “sister is the reason you’ve been fiddling with my horsebox?”
He laughed. It was a good laugh, the kind that made you laugh along with it. Damn him. “I’ve fixed the oil leak.” He looked down at his arms, which were as oil-covered as his face. Good arms, though. “Either that, or it’s just run out of oil to leak.”
“Well thank you for that. How much do I owe you?” I hid the slight knot of panic in my stomach behind a Minty smile. The reason I’d driven the horsebox down to my mother’s instead of my car was because it needed work I couldn’t pay for at the moment. If Santa Pants took one look at the Gershwin-Fox estate and whipped up a Gershwin-Fox sized bill for me, I was fucked.
Santa Pants laughed. “Oh, nothing. I owed Minty a favour, and I was in this neck of the woods anyway.”
I looked down at the red velvet pants, which had miraculously avoided any oil-stainage. “Delivering presents?”
He laughed again, and I caught Clint rolling his eyes.
“I’ll leave you two to sort things out between you, now that I know there are no burglars in need of a good shooting.”
There was an awkward moment of silence after Clint shuffled off before I remembered my manners.
“Thank you for fixing it. That’s really kind of you.”
He’d pulled the t-shirt free from his trousers and was wiping the oil off his hands, giving me a good eyeful of the aforementioned torso.
“Like I said, it was nothing. And as you’re so obviously wondering about the pants, I should probably explain that I’m on my way to the church hall to give out presents to the playgroup kids. Their usual Santa’s spending Christmas in Morocco this year, so my mum volunteered me as a replacement.”
He’d finished wiping his hands now, and I’d run out of reasons to stare at the strip of skin he’d accidentally exposed, showcasing that fascinating groove men get above their hips when they’re unnecessarily perfect.
“Very community-spirited of you.”
He shrugged. “I already had the costume.” It took me a second to catch on.
“You already had…” He was really laughing now. Then he stopped suddenly, face falling.
“Wait, I didn’t mean that like I’m some kind of pervert…”
I waved away his spluttering and lit another Benson. “How do you know Minty?”
“She’s friends with my nan, Edna Chesterfield.”
I stopped, lungs half-filled with delicious smoke, and almost choked. “You’re Edna’s grandson?”
I knew for a fact that Edna only had two grandchildren: the twenty-two-year-old granddaughter who had changed her name to Sparkla and made a surprisingly well-received fitness video, and Sparkla’s younger brother, Robbie. The last I’d heard, Robbie had been living at home with his parents and spending every waking minute wanking and playing video games (although I could grudgingly admit that intel might have been a few years out of date).
Robbie seemed not to have noticed my horror-stricken state, although thankfully he’d also seemed not to notice me ogling him a minute earlier.
“Hate to fix and run, but there’s going to be bloodshed if I don’t get to the church hall before eleven.” I nodded, mentally berating myself into a vow of silence. And a vow of not ogling young men I’d babysat for when I was in high school. I watched him walk out of the stable.
“Actually it’s Rob these days, Fliss.” He grinned again, letting me know he’d known exactly who I was from the get-go.
“Rob,” I amended, thoroughly annoyed at the fluttery butterfly feelings going on in my stomach. Pervy, fluttery little bastards. “Don’t you want to get cleaned up before you go over there?”
He whipped off that tight black t-shirt and stood there in just his red velvet Santa pants.
I’m going straight to hell.
“Got a hose?”
Christmas Eve night – Minty’s party
All the uncles were present and accounted for. Percy, with his festive green cravat and a pocket full of polaroids he’d taken of the animals at the clinic. Dennis, glass eye set at a jaunty angle so that he appeared always to be scouting for mistletoe. Bertram and Bickie, who I’d never been able to tell apart, although I suspected they responded to either name anyway. And then there were the aunts—only two this year, since Maudie had moved to Menorca in September and Minty hadn’t spoken to Geraldine since she’d made a pass at Clint at the wedding. Gloria and Sissy were married to Bertram and Bickie, but even they flitted from one to another like they weren’t too sure which was which.
Clint had quietly plied everyone with food and drink by the time Minty made her entrance, spritzing us all with smiles as she took a turn of the room. The all-business, all-the-time suit she’d worn that morning had been switched for a well-pinned frock in grey taffeta, highlighting the lovely white gold and diamond earrings Clint had given her as an early Christmas present. Her hair, as always, was a most impenetrable shade of black. She’d reached the age now where it was painfully obvious that it wasn’t her natural colour, but to change it would be like repainting the Mona Lisa wearing a tracksuit.
She almost faltered in her tour of the parlour when she spotted me. I’d done my best with the outfit, knowing not a single item of clothing in my wardrobe would meet with approval. A plain black number with a pair of wedge heels, and I’d even pinned my hair up. I mean, effort clearly had been made.
“Oh darling! Didn’t you have time to get changed before everyone arrived?”
It was loudly whispered, concern tinged with spectacle.
“Minty, let me get you a drink.”
Clint grimace-smiled at me before fetching the speediest gin and tonic I’d ever seen whipped into being. Friends and relatives clamoured around my mother, and she graced them with her Elizabeth Taylor smile when they pleased her and her Liza Minnelli glare when they didn’t. I’d had my eye on the armchair that had been shoved into a corner out of the way, and now that the parade was over I stealthily made my way over to it.
“I was just about to invite you to sneak out with me.”
I looked up from where I’d gracelessly collapsed in the armchair. Rob grinned down at me, all devilishly handsome and clean and even wearing proper pants.
“Sneak out with you?”
He patted his pocket. “Smoke.”
We passed through the kitchen, where a few minions still lingered to make sure all the food that was meant to be hot was hot and every drink had ice in it. Bustle and steam and clattering gave way to crisp night air and near-silence as the back door closed behind us. I hunched my shoulders against the cold.
“I’ll go and get a jacket for you-”
“I’m fine. We won’t be out here long.”
Rob laughed. “I’d put my arm around you to keep you warm, but after the horrified look you gave me when you realised who I was earlier, I suspect I’d end up being smacked in the mouth.”
I shoulder-nudged him. “You did notice, then.”
“Hard not to notice when the woman you’ve had a crush on for fifteen years looks at you like you’re still a spotty kid hooked on Legend of Zelda.”
I lit my cigarette, and watched as he did the same. He had a point. He wasn’t that spotty kid anymore, but I wasn’t his Doc Martens-wearing, Kurt Cobain-obsessed babysitter anymore either.
“What is it you do, Rob?”
I hoped the change of subject would end the awkward little moment without my having to answer him.
“I’m a Royal Navy engineer.”
In the Navy. That explained the body. And the oil leak-fixery, too.
“I’m on shore leave for three weeks, which leaves us plenty of time to arrange to go for a drink while I’m here.”
Hadn’t quite put the kibosh on the awkward conversation, then.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea. I’m only here until New Year, so.”
“So?” I just shrugged at him. “That’s not a reason. Come for a drink with me tomorrow.”
I laughed at the pushy devil. “Tomorrow is Christmas Day.”
“So?” He bloody winked at me. I was about to let him down gently (probably. Maybe.) when the sound of raised voices made me turn to peer through the glass panel in the back door. The shouting continued, but I couldn’t make out what was going on through the misted window.
“I’d better go and see…” Rob was already holding open the door for me. I hurried past him, and straight into chaos.
“Clint, put that phone down this instant!”
Even lying flat on her back in the middle of her alpaca wool rug, Minty was trying to call the shots.
“What happened?” I crouched next to her, risking her wrath since nobody else but Clint seemed willing to.
She glared at me, willing me to shut up through the sheer glintiness of her eyes.
“It’s the cancer,” Clint said, phone still held to his ear, “the old gal’s legs have given out—oh, yes, I need an ambulance please…”
Minty was formidable, even in a hospital bed. She must have nagged poor Clint to fetch her makeup down for her, since she looked just as Minty-fresh as ever. At first glance, at least.
“Don’t be such a silly thing,” she cooed, giving me a fuchsia pink smile. “I’ll be out of here in a jiffy, and I’d better not find the caterers have been shirking just because I wasn’t there to rally them…”
I clenched my jaw and tried to smile, but it just hurt.
“Clint, are you listening?” She turned on him, since I wasn’t playing the game very well. “We’ll eat at three, seeing as we’ve been held up here all morning. And we need to exchange our gifts first—oh, I do hope they pick up the pace a little so we can all get on with our day!”
Clint, who’d been at her side all night and all morning (except for the hour he’d disappeared on what I guessed was a cosmetic mission) took her hand in his.
“Minty, be quiet now dear. We’ll have the food brought here, so there’s no need to fuss.”
“Hush now. The doctors will get here when they get here.”
Rob called to ask how Minty was doing. I told him what Minty would want me to say.
“She’s feeling much better now. She’ll be back to her old self in no time.”
It was nice of him to call. I said I’d go for a drink with him sometime, but I think we both knew I was lying.
New Year’s Eve
Minty was adamant she was coming home. “I’m sick of the bloody staff always fussing and poking at me!”
“They’re only trying to help, Mummy.”
She sighed, and suddenly she looked seventy-nine. “I know, darling. I’ll try to stop being such a grouch.”
A long silence stretched between us. “Why didn’t you tell me you were ill?”
My mother took my hand. I could feel her bones through the skin. “I just didn’t want to be ill.”
New Year’s Day
She drifted off sometime after Jools Holland’s Hootenanny finished on the telly. Clint and I stayed until the hospital staff told us, nicely, to go home.
A brand new horsebox sat at the end of the driveway, a big shiny bow on it that could only be from her. Clint and I sat quietly in his Bentley for a good long while, just looking at it.
“Minty bought it after Robbie declared your old one a death-trap.”
I nodded, face already wet. Clint patted my hand.
“It’s going to be really quiet without her.”